Saturday, January 30, 2010

"Saag Paneer"

I will be the first to admit that I am not an authority on saag paneer.  The last time I had saag paneer was roughly 2 years ago and it was from a mediocre buffet.  While Indian buffets can be fabulous, this one was decidedly not.  The saag paneer there reminded me of baby food.  It looked like it had been pureed, mixed with cream cheese or heavy cream, and then studded with pallid chunks of paneer cheese.  Thinking back, I guess it looked like creamed spinach, only the spinach was seriously pureed, thus the nod to baby food.  I wasn't a huge fan of my last saag paneer experience and have been in no rush since then to try it again.

Then I bought a brick of paneer cheese on my epic shopping trip last weekend, so I had to figure out something to do with it.  I love sauteed spinach, so I figured I would try to make up my own saag paneer recipe, one that used sauteed spinach that wasn't pureed into a consistency that belonged in a Gerber baby food jar.  I also decided that my take on saag paneer would use more spices and no cream.  While cream definitely improves some dishes, it just seemed strange here.  And since Alex is out of town, I figured I could experiment in the kitchen more than usual - if dinner didn't turn out, only I would suffer.  Sometimes it's nice to have someone to use as a guinea pig, but sometimes it's best to try new things out on yourself before subjecting anyone else to them.

So I went in the kitchen and started deciding what I would throw into my saag paneer.  First I sauteed some spinach with onions, garlic, jalapeno, ginger, diced tomatoes and spices.  Next, I pan-fried the paneer cubes to give them some texture.  And then I threw them all together with turmeric, garam masala, ground roasted cumin seeds, cinnamon, ground coriander, s&p.  I'm not sure which (if any) of those spices traditionally go in saag paneer, but one of my favorite things about Indian food is the variety of spices used.  And when I did some brief online research to decide exactly what I should throw into my saag paneer, it seemed like you could throw in pretty much everything and call it saag paneer, so long as you used spinach and paneer.  So I took a little artistic license.  I pretty much started throwing things into the pan willy-nilly (including a heaping tablespoon of cilantro chutney I had made this morning) and what resulted from my experimentation far exceeded my expectations.  The sauteed spinach mixture was delicious!  It probably didn't taste anything like saag paneer is "supposed" to taste, but that's just fine with me! 

Recipe after the jump!
"Saag Paneer"

2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 cup yellow onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1 tsp fresh ginger, minced
1/2 jalapeno pepper, finely minced
1/3 cup diced plum tomato
4 oz. of fresh spinach, rinsed, destemmed and coarsely chopped
___ oz. package paneer, chopped into 1-inch cubes
1 tsp ground, roasted cumin seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp garam masala
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1 tbsp cilantro chutney (recipe below)
1-2 tbsp heavy cream or Greek yogurt (optional)

Heat a large saute pan over medium heat.  Once pan is hot, add 1 tbsp vegetable oil.  Then add onion, garlic, ginger and jalapeno.  Saute until softened, about 4-5 minutes.  Add tomatoes and stir to combine ingredients.  Add spinach and saute until it starts to wilt, stirring occasionally.  Once spinach begins wilting, add s&p, cumin, turmeric, ground coriander, and ground cinnamon.  Meanwhile, heat 1 tbsp vegetable oil in another saute pan (preferably non-stick) over medium-high heat.  Add paneer cubes and brown lightly on all sides, about 3 minutes.  Remove from pan with a slotted spoon.  Add paneer cubes to wilted spinach mixture.  Add garam masala and cilantro chutney.  Stir to combine and heat through, 2-3 minutes.  If desired, add heavy cream or Greek yogurt.  Toss to combine.  Taste, and season with more s&p if necessary.

Cilantro Chutney
Indian Cooking
By Madhur Jaffrey

3 cups cilantro, rinsed and coarsely chopped (remove lower stems and roots)
1 fresh, hot green chili, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground, roasted cumin seeds
freshly ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor or blender.  Blend, pushing down with a rubber spatula several times, until you have a paste.  Empty paste into glass or other nonmetallic bowl.  Serve.

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